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<p>Funkmaster Flex, doyen of New York's DJs, runs a celebrity car show that is the ultimate in hip hop excess: it's got bikini-clad girls, a jeep with a shark tank- and 50 Cent with his exceedingly large entourage.
Sunday September 21, 2003
Wyclef was waiting for his sharks. His sharks were late. He'd ordered them on Monday - one black-tipped reef, one lemon. By Thursday night, they were on their way from Jawz ('Our Speciality is Sharks!!!') in Fort Lauderdale. They flew first class. Right now, no one could say quite where they were. It was Saturday morning. Wyclef peered into the empty 140-gallon saltwater aquarium he'd had installed in the back of his white Hummer H2 truck and tutted. If he was going to win this thing, he was going to have to make sure of those sharks. He kicked some of the polystyrene imitation snow out of the way with his size 12 Air Jordans and went off to tell someone to polish the chrome on his 10ft Spiderman chopper.
It was 7.45am in New Jersey. At 10am sharp the metal detectors would be switched on at the Third Annual Funkmaster Flex Celebrity Car Show - a celebration of rap stars' most ostentatious vehicles, hosted by Flex, hip hop's most entrepreneurial DJ - and 30,000 people would file into the Garden State Convention and Exhibition Centre. By 12.30pm, the police would be called in to try to sort out the overcrowding. Come 5pm, the staff gathered in the car park of the Holiday Inn opposite would say they'd never seen such a fuss. They were used to antiques fairs, they'd say, rubbing their heads, and computer shows. But you only got a few thousand going to those.
Wyclef wasn't thinking about all the people, though. He was thinking about the judges. Last year, he'd won the event, beating fellow hip-hop stars Nelly, DMX and Lil' Kim to first place. This year, he'd upped his game. In addition to the Hummer truck customised with an aquarium and the Spiderman chopper, he'd brought along a pink Cadillac Biarritz with pink mink interior, a tiptronic Ferrari Modena, a G5 wagon, a Maybach 62, a 1958 Rolls-Royce, a black Bentley Azure, a white Bentley Azure and a Formula 1 McLaren. Busta Rhymes might have his matching acid-green and orange Lamborghini Murcielagos and a replica Batmobile, P Diddy might have his baby blue Ferrari, but for the sheer scale of his operation - plus the two sharks - Wyclef surely had the edge.
Cars, so say today's high-flying rappers, are the new jewellery. The roots of hip hop's infatuation with expensive, outrageous and overtly customised motor vehicles lie in ghetto fabulous, the trend for conspicuous consumption. Initially, rappers engaged in obscenely decadent games of one-upmanship with jewellery. Stars would order gold chains worth up to half a million dollars, 'iced out' with diamonds in increasingly flamboyant fashions. But once the vogue for gold swung to platinum, and once platinum swung to white gold, rappers attempting to sell on their original booty found they were lucky to get 20 per cent of the original price. Jewellery was simply a bad investment. So they moved their money into cars.
The first hip-hop car was the Lexus. Then came the vehicles traditionally associated with white-collar success: Rolls-Royce, BMW and Mercedes. Puff Daddy would cruise around The Hamptons in his white 1972 Bentley, buffed to a blinding gleam. But anyone could cruise round in a Bentley.
When The Notorious B.I.G. was shot dead in 1997, you could be forgiven for thinking he was riding around the Bronx in a street-cleaning utility van. In fact, it was a GMC Denali - a four-wheel drive, five-passenger truck. He was to start a trend. 'We're in the era of crews now,' says Radio 1's Tim Westwood. '50 Cent can't just jump in a little sports car and drive down the road by himself. He has to be with his entourage. That's where the big trucks came in.'
Trucks have another advantage over flashy cars: you can customise them more easily. Try replacing the seats on a BMW 7 Series and you'll end up in a pickle with the car's internal heating and electrics. Put 24-inch chrome wheel rims, two-tone ostrich leather seats, dual exhaust pipes and strobe lights on your SUV, and suddenly you've got a vehicle that's going places. And once customisation came in, the one-upmanship really kicked off. Last year, Busta Rhymes spent $1 million on his cars. Wyclef's Formula 1 McLaren alone is worth £600,000. 'There's car collections and there's car collections,' says Wyclef. 'Growing up in the 'hood as kids we'd always play "that's my car". We liked cars! But we couldn't afford them. Now I'm trying to take my collection to another level.' There is, perhaps, a surprising precedent here. 'Elton John is the king of cars, man. You can't get no bigger than Elton John.'
In the quest for 'rap's flossiest ride', the Exhibition Centre in New Jersey sometimes looked like Wacky Races. 'There's always somebody who oversteps the line,' says Westwood, who drives a reasonably sober Yukon. 'But when I'm rolling down with my 24-inch rims, nobody's saying "Wacky Races" to me. Motherfuckers are saying, "God damn, there goes Westwood. That's a great look."'
Tony Martinez, car show veteran, was excited. He put his electric wheelchair into reverse and sped off round the side of his custom-painted gold 1997 Ford van. 'What's there to admire about a fish tank?' he said. 'Anyone can hook a fish tank up. You tell me whose vehicle has three video cameras, six video monitors, dashboard remote control, refrigerator, XBox and neon and strobe lights.' He fiddled with a switch on his wheelchair. A camera spun round in the back of the van. The forecourt of the exhibition centre appeared on a big TV screen. 'People think that they have seen it all,' said Tony. 'Then BAM! We hit 'em with the cameras. '
Tony was one of 100 non-celebrity participants at the Celebrity Car Show. Non-celebs had to show their vehicles outside the Exhibition Centre, in the car park. But nobody much minded that. It gave them a chance to try and drown each other out with their JL Audio stereos. 50 Cent's million-selling hottest album on the block, Get Rich or Die Tryin', was the favourite. Round teatime, the silver Toyota Tacoma broke with convention and thundered out Chris de Burgh's 'Lady in Red'.
Some teenage girls walked around in tight white vests, hotpants and high heels. They were giving out Black Magic car wax. One of the judges walked around with a clipboard, giving out points. He checked each vehicle off against the categories on his A4 list. Paint. Undercarriage. Interior. Lighting Display. He asked the owner of a white Lincoln Navigator to demonstrate his stereo. The music distorted to the point just before the point of no recognition. The wing mirrors rattled. 'Nice,' the judge said. Some people had $25,000 to spend and just handed their vehicle over to a custom car shop, he explained. He'd rather see the guy who only had $5,000 to spend, but had done the work himself. With love. 'It has to be tastefully done,' he said. In the next lot, the Audi TT sprayed two white jets of nitrous oxide out of vents just below its headlights, James Bond-style.
In the hip-hop car game, all roads lead to Funkmaster Flex. The premier hip-hop DJ in New York for the past decade, Flex has transformed his passion for cars into a billion-dollar business. 'A car expresses your personality,' he says. 'Customising it expresses it even further.' Initially, Flex started customising cars for himself, as a hobby. Then he started Team Baurtwell, a celebrity car club whose members include Missy Elliott, Ludacris, Justin Timberlake and Faith Evans. 'I feel that nobody can put a car together the way I do,' he says.
Busta Rhymes was talking cars. Specifically, he was talking his cars. He stood in the middle of the Exhibition Centre and held forth on the microphone.'Has anyone ever seen a car like this before?' he asked. He was pointing to a grape-coloured sports car. The interior had been upholstered in caramel leather. It looked like a Lamborghini. 'This isn't a Lamborghini,' Busta said. 'The doors go up like a Lamborghini. But it's called a Spyder. There's only two of them in the world. This car is started with a push button.' He demonstrated this with an imperial laugh. 'I think me and Wyclef, we scared a few motherfuckers today,' he said.
An hour or so earlier, 50 Cent had turned up. He hadn't got on the mic, but he had removed his shirt, headgear and vest. He'd thrown them into the crowd and posed by his collection of Cadillacs. One of them had an image of the late singer Aaliyah spraypainted onto the boot. Then he'd jogged round the exhibition centre, flanked by six hulking bouncers. Nearly everyone followed him round, cameras held over their heads. When he left through the main doors, the crowd tried to follow, but they wouldn't all fit.
An hour or so before, Funkmaster Flex had gone on walkabout. He hadn't removed his clothes or been mobbed. But then, he had been working. He wandered around with a cameraman, recording links for his TV show Ride with Funkmaster Flex. 'DMX, Busta Rhymes... the biggest names in hip hop,' said Flex to the camera. 'You want hydraulic car tipping? Watch the show. Hot!'
Wyclef and Tony Martinez were feeling pretty good. Wyclef's cars - plus the two sharks, delivered in the nick of time at 10.15am - had swung the judges to award him first place for the second year running. Tony Martinez had collected the 'Best SUV' award and was looking forward to adding the trophy to his 124 others. Yes, it had been a good day.
Wyclef, ever the all-round entertainer, reflected on the family nature of the event. 'It was good, man,' he said. 'You got something like this where all the mums, the dads and the kids could all come out to play.' And days like this, he said, made him feel like a big kid coming out to play.
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